Scholarly Preaching

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by Neil Godfrey

How remarkable that some scholars find confirmation of the literal fundamentals of the Christian faith in their erudition. One of these is emeritus professor Larry Hurtado who would appear to have found proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Of course it is difficult for a scholar who insists that his religious faith does not undermine his scholarly integrity to express conviction that an academically rigorous analysis of the evidence demonstrates the near-certainty of the resurrection, so the point is expressed in reverse. One cannot say that the resurrection of Jesus explains the evidence, but one can say that the followers of Jesus had overwhelmingly experienced something that they came to believe was evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Scholars are happy, thereby. The sceptics can supposedly free to attribute psychotic problems to the disciples. But the believers know what is being said. And his recent audience at Perth’s Trinity Theological College who “commissioned” Hurtado to deliver his address certainly believe in the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus.

So what is the proof?

It lies in they way two Old Testament texts — Psalm 110 Isaiah 45:23-25 — were interpreted by the “earliest believers in their efforts to understand and express their experiences and convictions about Jesus and God.”

First, the mind-conditioning.

We are hit with a series of descriptors to lead us to interpret whatever is coming as “curious”, “strange”, “astonishing”. That is, whatever is about to come has a strong emotive force — not unlike something that the earliest believers themselves supposedly felt when they encountered something strange in need of explanation.

it is a curious fact that neither [OT passage]seems to have been particularly prominent in “pre-Christian” Jewish tradition.  

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

each of these OT texts receives a remarkable and highly innovative interpretation/usage in the NT texts.

Note that. There is no merely “new” or “deviant” or simply “innovative” interpretation of texts when it comes to the early Christians. No, their new interpretations are “highly” innovative, even “remarkable”.

In an astonishing reading, in vv. 9-11 the OT text is drawn on to portray a universal submission to Jesus as Kyrios, thereby bringing glory to the one God (the Father).  That is, an OT passage that emphatically declares the sole supremacy of the one God is drawn on to declare a dyadic obeisance, to Jesus and to God.  

The earliest Christians “astonish” us — scholars included! Their resurrection experience is being relayed to us all by some form of wave emotion. And of course, the OT is interpreted most dogmatically (or is that word pejorative? should I say “emphatically”) that God is a single entity, period. So let all those radical scholars who disagree be shut outside the door. And yes, Hurtado does have his critics on this point, despite his efforts to inform the public that they are somehow behind the eight-ball. (Recently I spoke to a linguist here at the campus where I work and I asked him about the status of Chomsky’s ideas in the field today. Unlike a good many biblical scholars he did not tell me that what he personally believed as if that were the only story worth listening to. He began with, “It depends on who you talk to!” Yes, he did then give his own view — but made it clear that it was his and his was one among several. How many biblical scholars prominent in the public domain are like that?)

So, what could have prompted these radically innovative readings of these OT texts in earliest Christian circles?

The argument avalanches. It is no longer merely “highly innovative.” It has now become “radically innovative”!

And what is the answer to that question?

It seems to me that an (perhaps the) essential factor was the influence of powerful religious experiences that re-ordered the outlook of these early Jewish believers, driving them to their scriptures to try to comprehend things.  Reports of these experiences include experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus, visions of him in heavenly glory, prophetic oracles declaring his glorification, etc.

Believing that their scriptures held the secrets of God’s purposes, they mined these texts fervently, looking for any light that could help them come to terms with things.  And in such OT texts as those I’ve cited here they found these resources.  These texts seemed to open up to them in new ways, and they saw things in these texts that were new and that provided them with ways of expressing their convictions and with the confidence that their experiences were valid.

We should probably picture circles of early believers poring over their scriptures in prayer and expectation, and in an atmosphere alive with what they took to be the revelatory activity of God’s Spirit.  In this sort of setting something like prophetic insights emerged and were embraced.  Thereafter such OT texts were also then used in proclamation and defence of their faith-claims to fellow Jews and then to gentiles also.

So there you have it. The message of the Gospels paraphrased for a modern readership. And by a scholarly route, no less.

The disciples of Jesus experienced Jesus in his resurrection and heavenly glory and they then turned to the Scriptures where, just as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit guided them into their correct interpretation. They then went out and preached the gospel just like Acts says.

But hang on, look again at what those experiences supposedly were.

Notice that they are ALL to do with a heavenly figure. They are all about a spirit being. And of course, because the OT passages are also about the role of a spiritual being in heaven. No matter that at some point in one of those texts that spirit being had a passing brush with an earthly realm as per the Ascension of Isaiah and various passages in the NT corpus.

There is not the slightest reason in the evidence to assume that the experiences related to a human well-known to the disciples. Indeed, if that had been the case, then we would expect devout Jews to learn to follow God and not exalt a mere man to a worshipful status beside him. The much more likely explanation is that the visions were from first to last of a heavenly figure — just as the OT passages and their Pauline interpretations tell us, and just as Larry Hurtado himself appears to concede.

So I submit that a simpler explanation for the innovative interpretation of these scriptures (innovative except for a couple of earlier somewhat similar interpretations) would be that certain sectarians sought to explain visionary experiences of a heavenly being — just the sort of thing we read about in noncanonical gospels and that we find the butt of polemics in the NT epistles (and possibly some passages in the Gospels)?  Or maybe someone came up with a new interpretation (it happens — it even happened in the course of the Second Temple complex of Judaic sects) and confirming visions followed?

(I’d like to raise some of these points with Larry on his blog but past experience has taught me that he is more likely to simply delete my comments and then attack his truncated interpretation of them in a post along with much ad homina, leaving me no reply or say at all. I say that with real sadness, because after reading several of his books, some of which I have discussed very positively here on this blog, I really had hoped for a courteous and civil exchange of some views.)



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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Scholarly Preaching”

  1. I guess I’m just a hyper-skeptical denialist, but I have a hard time taking anyone seriously as a historian if they affirm the resurrection as a historical fact. The other day the subject of Jesus’s baptism and the criteria of embarrassment came up on McGrath’s blog and he asked why the questioner rejected the arguments that had persuaded the vast majority of historians who had studied the subject. I was tempted to point out that many of the scholars he cites on his blog–e.g., Hurtado, James Dunn, Craig Evans–probably didn’t require very much persuasion.

  2. If I’m not mistaken, Dr. Hurtado is a Pentecostal. He believes he is literally indwelt by the Holy Spirit and supernaturally guided in his interpretation of the Bible. How could any of us hope to compete with that?

  3. I did not know Hurtado has been associated with glossolalia. Other Pentecostals I have known and attempted to engage with in open discussion have invariably turned out to be dogmatic and judgmental. It never crossed my mind that those same qualities I have encountered in Hurtado might have a similar association. I feel like I’ve been cheated, exposed as a fool, for ever giving anything from him the time of day. Actually I have read three scholarly authors Hurtado has publicly belittled and essentially accused of outright incompetence and ignorance and even of unprofessional claims about him (Hurtado) himself — I read them because of Hurtado’s accusations since I wanted to find out for myself what they said — and in each case I have found Hurtado to have been flat wrong, over-sensitive, and actually very polite and respectful in their treatment of Hurtado. Sigh, sigh, sigh! I have attempted to be respectful and civil to Hurtado, too — but he has always found some phrase that he can turn around and read as an insult. I have to conclude the man is a dogmatic and judgmental glossolaliac just like too many other pentecostals I have had the misfortune to have known.

    As for McGrath (are people still taking him seriously?) — he has even used Grant and Romer as examples of historians who have, by means of their well-honed historiographical and scholarly skills, concluded that Jesus was historical. I have discussed how Grant comes to that conclusion and I will one day do the same for Romer. I expect McGrath to be as silent on my treatment of Romer as he was for my posts on Grant: http://vridar.org/category/book-reviews-notes/grant-jesus-historians-view/

      1. Michael Grant does not explicitly confess to being a Christian but he does write in his Introduction:

        The most potent figure, not only in the history of religion, but in world history as a whole, is Jesus Christ: the maker of one of the few revolutions which have lasted. Millions of men and women for century after century have found his life and teaching overwhelmingly significant and moving. And there is ample reason, as this book will endeavour to show, in this later twentieth century why this should still be so.

        Then early in chapter one he explains the inner mind if this Jesus:

        Every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing, a difficult thing to put into words today: the realization of the Kingdom of God upon the earth.

        From what I recall Grant nowhere explicitly confesses to being a Christian. He may in the approach outlined above be merely winning over the readership of believers. Or he may indeed have been a devout Anglican.

  4. Hurtado isn’t a Pentecostalist. I don’t know what he began as but he is now an Anglican – and actually, from chance remarks I’ve heard him make in seminars – a fairly broad-church one. His incisive manner on his blog (and elsewhere) is to do with his personality not his religious beliefs.

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